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IRISH IMMIGRANT 
PARTICIPATION IN THE 
CONSTRUCTION OF THE 

ERIE CANAL 




May 19,1969 



IRISH IMMIGRANT PARTICIPATION IN THE CONSTRUCTION 
OF THE ERIE CANAL 



by 

Dr. George J. Svejda 



DIVISION OF HISTORY 
OFFICE OF ARCHEOLOGY AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION 

MAY 19, 1969 



NATIONAL PARK SERVICE 



U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR 



F 

12*7 

•15 



TABLE OF CONTENTS 

Page 

INTRODUCTION ii 

I. CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO THE IDEA OF BUILDING 1 
THE ERIE CANAL 

II. THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT WORK 11 

III. THE DEMAND FOR FOREIGN LABOR IN AMERICA 15 

IV. THE PROGRESS OF THE CANAL CONSTRUCTION AND THE 20 
IRISH WORKMEN ON THE ERIE CANAL 

V. WORKING CONDITIONS ON THE ERIE CANAL 32 

VI. CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT USED ON THE ERIE CANAL 39 

VII. THE FINAL STAGES OF THE CANAL CONSTRUCTION 43 

APPENDICES 53 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 58 



i 



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INTRODUCTION 

Irish Immigrant Participation in the Construction of the 
Erie Canal (AMI-H-2, 1966) is a study of the circumstances lead- 
ing to the idea of building the Erie Canal, the construction of 
this great work, and the Irish participation in it. 

The economic importance of the Nation's rivers and lakes 
was early realized by many prominent Americans, including George 
Washington. With the purchase of Louisiana, the United States 
acquired free and uninterrupted navigation of the Mississippi. 
The Louisiana Purchase, coupled with the introduction of steam 
navigation, accelerated the settlement of the Mississippi Valley 
and the territory bordering upon the great rivers of the West, 
the Missouri, the Ohio, and the Illinois. 

A Resolution adopted on February 4, 1808, in the New York 
House of Assembly called for the appointment of a joint committee 
of the Senate and the Assembly of the State of New York to explore 
the possibilities of opening a communication between the tide 
waters of the Hudson River and Lake Erie. On April 11, 1808, 
the New York State Legislature passed a law authorizing the 
Treasurer to pay to the Surveyor-General a sum not to exceed 
six hundred dollars for an exploration and survey of possible 



ii 



routes of communication between Lake Erie and the Hudson 
River. Surveyor General Simeon De Witt appointed James Geddes 
of Onondaga to carry out this survey, and on January 20, 1809, 
he presented to De Witt a favorable report on an inland route. 

By virtue of a Resolution passed on March 15, 1810, by 
both branches of the New York State Legislature, Gouverneur 
Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Simeon De Witt, 
William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter were appointed 
Commissioners for exploring the entire canal route. Subsequently, 
a law was passed on April 5, 1810, authorizing the Treasurer 
to pay to the Commissioners a sum not exceeding $3,000 to 
implement the Resolution passed on March 15, 1810. 

The Commissioners studied the various routes and their 
advantages and disadvantages, and on March 2, 1811, submitted a 
favorable report on the advisability of the canal undertaking. 
Their report resulted in the passage of a law on April 8, 1811, 
by which the Commissioners received special powers to implement 
the proposed inland navigation, such as power to buy lands 
through which navigation might be carried, and to employ engineers, 
surveyors and other people as they should deem necessary to 
fulfill the obligations imposed on them by the Act. 

The War of 1812 delayed the plans for construction of 
the canal, and Federal assistance was vetoed by President 



iii 



James Madison. In addition new doubters and obstructionists 
were rising in opposition to the Canal project. During the 
summer of 1813 the Commissioners suspended the surveys because 
of military operations which were not "favorable to internal 
improvement . " 

With the ending of the War of 1812 there was renewed 
interest throughout the country in the provision of good and 
convenient roads, bridges, and canals, which would facilitate 
the transportation of goods and produce from one place to 
another, and render travelling easy, safe, and expeditious. 

In New York this interest was manifested by the revival of 
the plan for the construction of an Erie canal. On April 17, 
1816, a law was passed providing for the improvement of internal 
navigation in the State of New York, and Messrs. Stephen 
Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Samuel Young, Joseph 
Ellicott, and Myron Holle were appointed Canal Commissioners, 
while the names of Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, William 
North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter, all previously 
Commissioners, were omitted. Shortly afterward the newly 
appointed Commissioners selected De Witt Clinton as their 
President. At a meeting held in New York on May 17, 1816, the 
Commissioners decided to divide the proposed Erie Canal into 
•three sections, with an engineer for each section, "assisted by 
a surveyor, and a competent number of hands." On February 17, 



iv 



1817, the Commissioners submitted to the Assembly its report 
giving conclusive evidence in favor of the proposed canals. 
On the strength of this report, on April 15, 1817, M An act 
respecting navigable communications between the Great Western 
and Northern Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean" was passed into 
law. In the same month Mr. Clinton was elected Governor of 
the State of New York, and the Commissioners, as soon as the 
season permitted, proceeded to the execution of their duties. 
With the passage of the law of April 15, 1817, authorizing 
construction between the Mohawk and Seneca rivers, the 
Commissioners began work in earnest, and on July 4, 1817, work 
on the Canal itself was commenced with the excavation at Rome, 
inaugurating a monumental project which lasted over eight years. 
The Canal was built jointly by a native and Irish immigrant 
work force. Malaria and mud were the two principal obstacles 
in the construction of the Canal at the Montezuma Marshes, where 
several contractors gave up in this malarial swampland, but 
these hazards were overcome through the endeavors of the hearty 
Irish immigrants who, despite heavy mortality due to malaria, 
stuck to the job and finished it. Finally on October 26, 1825, 
the venture which President Thomas Jefferson had denounced, 
declaring that "Talk of making a canal 350 miles through 
wilderness is little short of madness," was completed and 



v 



opened, connecting the waters of Lake Erie and the Hudson River. 
On November 4, 1825, the first canal boats to reach New York 
City using the Erie Canal, with Governor Clinton and other 
dignitaries aboard, arrived nine days after leaving Buffalo, 
New York. 

Of the importance and magnitude of the Erie Canal there 
can be no doubt. At the time the Canal was completed in 1825, 
it was the longest canal in the world. It was Napoleon's maxim 
that rivers unite and mountains divide. Similarly, canals 
unite and link the reciprocal interests of communities. In the 
case of the Erie Canal its completion was destined to enrich 
and cement the Federal Union. 

The construction of the Canal benefited agriculture and 
extended commerce and navigation. It shortened the time of 
travel from New York to Buffalo from six weeks to ten days. 
It gave impetus to immigration, being heavily used by the 
immigrants in reaching their new homes in the Midwest. 

The importance of the contribution of Irish labor to its • 
construction cannot be denied nor overlooked. The feeling may 
be that this has been overemphasized. Such a feeling may be 
reflected in the official publications such as New York Canal 
Laws or the Annual Reports of the Canal Commissioners issued 
between 1818 and 1825, in which only one direct reference is made 



vi 



to the Irish laborers. This is in the Report for 1818, in which 
the Commissioners state that three Irishmen in the employ of 
Messrs. Pease, Mosely, and Dexter completed three rods of the 
Canal in five and one-half days. Their work included finishing 
the banks and tow-path "in four feet cutting." It took these 
men sixteen and one-half days to complete the excavation of two 
hundred forty-nine and one- third cubic yards, and at twelve 
and one-half cents per cubic yard, each of these workers earned 
$1.88 per day. This of course does not mean that there were only 
three Irishmen working on the Canal. As a system, three men were 
attached to a working team, and the workers could choose to be 
paid either per diem or by the amount of earth they excavated and 
cleared. As no other reference to the Irish or any other ethnic 
group appears in any of the Annual Reports of the Canal Commissioners 
it is possible to assume that the above reference to the three Irish 
laborers was meant to illustrate the efficacy of plough and 
scraper in excavation as opposed to spade and wheel-barrow, and 
also how well the Irishmen labored. We should also remember that 
Governor De Witt Clinton was a supporter of the Irish and enjoyed 
considerable support from them, and he courted their votes. 
Considering the fact that it was the custom of the Irish immigrants 
to choose to settle near the places of their employment it is 
possible to assume that the local contractors who were given 



vii 



responsibility to carry out the Canal constru „ion employed them 
in large numbers for this rather dirty job. 

We should remember that between 1817 and 1825 there were 
many Irish as well as Germans living in the State of New York, 
and that the New York Census of 1845 shows the Irish comprising 
10% to 15% of the population along the Erie Canal. One of the 
native Americans who worked with spade and wheelbarrow on the 
construction of the Canal was Mr. Benjamin F. Wade, who later 
became a distinguished Senator from Ohio. When a bill organizing 
a territorial government for Nebraska and Kansas was introduced 
in the Congress in 1854, opposition arose on the part of the 
Know-Nothing legislators who thought that the immigrants should 
not receive land there. Senator William H. Seward of New York 
in his lengthy speech pointed out Senator Wade's participation 
in the canal construction and emphasized that, had it not been 
for the immigrant labor which built its canal and railroad systems, 
America would not be so far advanced. And this is perhaps true, 
because the hard work of the immigrant labor force, of which the 
Irish constituted the major part, helped substantially to move 
America toward its present prosperity. 

The writer is very grateful to Mr. Richard N. Wright, 

Secretary-General of the Canal Society of New York State, for 

7 

viii 



giving him valuable advice and suggestions. To his personal 
friend and former colleague, Dr. Thomas M. Pitkin, he is greatly 
indebted for reading the manuscript and for his wise counsel. 
To Mrs. Maxine Gresham go his thanks for her excellent typing of 
the manuscript. 

George J. Svejda 



ix 



CHAPTER I 



CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO THE IDEA OF BUILDING 
THE ERIE CANAL 

The word canal derives from the Latin canal is , meaning a 

channel , which in return is derived from the same root as the 

Sanskrit word khan, meaning "to dig." This word penetrated into 

other languages, and thus in English and French it became canal , 

in Italian canal e , in German Schiffahrtskanal or Kanal , in 

Russian XCVtLCulk , in Czech pruplav or kanal , to mention a few 

examples. A canal is a natural or artificial water route used 

for the transportation by ship of people or goods. The Egyptian 

Pharaohs built canals in the sandy wastelands of the Mideast 

at least 4,000 years ago; millions of years previous to this period 

there had been a natural channel across this narrow isthmus of 

land. However, the old canals of the Pharaohs became useless with 
1 

neglect long ago. During the 16th century, when trade within 
continental Europe was developing, this new element of the economy 
brought with it the necessity of establishing trade routes between 
neighboring states. The credit for the first utilization of canals 



1. For early description of Egyptian and Middle East canals 
see particularly James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt. 
Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, 
Collected, Edited and Translated with Commentary by James Henry 
Breasted. Vol. I. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1906), 
pp. 1 ^9- 1 50 and 291-292; Seton Lloyd, Ruined Cities of Iraq. (London: 
0xford~UnTversity Press , 19*»5), pp. 40-^3; .BedTich Hrozny , ~ - '^tmt 
History of .Western Asia s India ana Crete. (Prague: 1 Orbis, n.d.), 
pp. 2 and 87; James Henry Breasted , The Dawn of Conscience. (New York 
and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933), p. 97. 



1 



for the purpose of water transport in modern Europe belongs to 

the French, who during the 16th and 17th centuries built many 

2 

canals for this purpose. 

The origin of canal building in what presently is the United 

States of America may well go back to "the canal cut across Long 

Island from Mecox Bay to Peconic Bay by Mongotucksee, the chief 

of the Montauk Indians, long before the white settlement of the 
3 

country," 

From the time of the first English settlement in Jamestown, 
Virginia, in 1607, until the end of active hostilities of the 
American Revolution at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, there had 
been no large-scale canal construction in this country. Indeed 
the transportation system developed under the Colonial British 
administration revealed gross inadequacies at the time of the 
Revolution. It is true that there were lakes and rivers to serve 
the Colonial Americans, but it is also true that long distances 
very often separated the lakes and rivers from one another, and 
that these distances, as well as waterfalls, made a continuous 
water voyage hazardous when at all possible. 



2. For material on the French canal engineering see the 
excellent work of General William Barclay Parsons, Engineers and 
Engineering in the Renaissance. (Baltimore: The Williams 6 Wilkins 
Company, 1939), pp. ^21-459; Also the work by Jdrome de La Lande, 
Des aanaux de navigation, et sp6cialement du canal de Languedoc. 
(Paris: Chez la veuve Oesaint, 1778), passim, presents a good back- 
ground on the quality of French canal engineering of the same period. 

3. Robert Payne, The Canal Builders: The Story of Canal Engineers 
Through the Ages. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), p. 139. 



2 



The importance of rivers and lakes was real ' zed by many- 
prominent Americans; George Washington was so fascinated by them 
that he wrote in his letter of October 13, 1783, to the Marquis 
de Chastellux, "Prompted by these actual observations, I could 
not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the 
vast inland navigation of these United States, and could not 
but be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it; 
and with the goodness of that Providence which dealt his favours 

to us with so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom 

4 

enough to improve them." 

Washington's interest in canals is also evident from his 

letter of November 3, 1784, to Jacob Read, the South Carolina 

delegate to the Continental Congress, in which he said: "Extend 

the inland navigation to the eastern waters, communicate them 

as near as possible (by excellent roads) with those which run 

to the westward. Open these to the Ohio and such others as extend 

from Ohio towards Lake Erie, and we shall not only draw the produce 

of the western settlers, but the fur and peltry trades of the 

lakes also, to our ports (being the nearest and easiest of transpor- 

k. John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 3 Commander in 
Chief of the American Forces , During the War Which Established the 
Independence of His Country 3 and First President of the United States. 
Compiled Under the Inspection of the Honourable Bushrod Washington, 
from Original Papers Bequeathed to him by his Deceased Relative, and 
now in Possession of the Author To Which is Prefixed, An Introduction, 
Containing a Compendious View of the Colonies Planted by the English 
on the Continent of North America, from their Settlement to the 
Commencement of that War Which Terminated in Their Independence. Vol. V. 
(Philadelphia: Printed and Published by CP. Wayne, 1807), pp. 10-11. 

3 



tation) to the amazing increase of our exports, while we bind 

5 

these people to a chain which can never be broken." 

Imbued with his own enthusiasm to make the Potomac navi- 
gable to Cumberland, Washington in 1784 became the President of 
the Potomac Canal Company and vainly attempted to build a canal 

system connecting the Potomac with the Ohio through the difficult 
6 

mountain passes. 

By the 1790s there were underway several important ( canal 

projects and river improvements in the seaboard States. One of 

them was the Santee Canal of South Carolina, connecting the 

Santee River with the Cooper River near Charleston. It was built 

between 1793 and 1800 under the supervision of the Swedish 

engineer Christian Senf , who had arrived in this country with the 

Hessian troops of General John Burgoyne, had fallen into American 

hands with the surrender at Saratoga, and during the latter part 

of the war had served as an engineer with the South Carolina 
7 

militia. 

The Middlesex Canal of Massachusetts was another improvement 

scheme that was started in 1790 and completed fourteen years 

later, traversing the northeastern corner of the State, from tide- 

8 

water about 27 1/4 miles inland to the present Chelmsford. 

5. Payne, op. oit. , p. 141. 

6. Ibid., pp. 157-158. 

7. Ibid., pp. 141-142. 

8. Ibid. , p. 142. 

4 



Still another was the Little Falls Canal on the Mohawk 

River in New York, which was begun the same year as the Santee 

9 

Canal and which took two years to build. 

All of these early projects were designed to serve local 
needs, but at the same time gave this country its very first 
practical experience in canal construction. 

By 1790 the importance of river improvements and canal 
projects had also been realized more fully in the State of 
New York. Up to 1790 the means of inland water transportation 
in the State had consisted only of the natural streams, and 
little effort had been made to introduce artificial improvements 
into them. 

The period from 1791 to 1807 was the era of the Western 
Inland Lock Navigation Company's canals, during which this private 
enterprise improved streams and also used them for navigation, 
although only to a limited extent. Specifically the Western 
Inland Lock Navigation Company projects consisted of widening 

.10 

the Mohawk and building locks at Little Falls and Rome, New York. 

On February 4, 1808, a Resolution was adopted in the 
New York House of Assembly calling for the appointment of a 
joint committee of the Senate and Assembly of the State of 

9. Loo. ait. 

10. Blake McKelvey, Rochester the Water-Power City 1812-1854. 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 19^5), p. 63. 

5 



New York "to take into consideration the propriety of exploring 
and causing an accurate survey to be made, of the most eligible 
and direct route for a canal, to open a communication between 
the tide waters of the Hudson river and Lake Erie, to the end 
that congress may be enabled to appropriate such as may be 



necessary to the accomplishment of that great national object." 

After the Resolution was concurred in by the Senate on the 
following day, a Joint Committee was appointed, which reported 
on March 21, 1808, "that speedy measures ought to be adopted 
on the part of this state for ascertaining the best route of 
communication by canals between the tide waters of the Hudson 
river, and the great western lakes, and for making accurate 
surveys and charts to be transmitted to the President of the 



United States." After the Resolution was adopted in the House 



of Assembly and concurred in by the Senate on April 6, 1808, 
the New York State Legislature on April 11, 1808, passed a law 
authorizing the Treasurer to pay to the Surveyor-General a 



11. Laws of the State of New York, in Relation to the Erie 
and Champlain Canals, together with the Annual Reports of the 
Canal Commissioners, and other Documents, requisite for a complete 
Official History of Those Works. Also, Correct Maps Delineating 
the Routes of the Erie and Champlain Canals, and designating the 
Lands through which they pass. Published in pursuance of the "Act 
for Re-Printing the Laws and Other Official Documents, relating 
to the Erie and Champlain Canals," Passed February 8, 1825, Vol. I. 
(Albany: Published by Authority of the State, E. and E. Hosford, 
Printers, 1825), pp. 7-8. Hereinafter cited as New York Canal 
Laws, Vol . I . 



11 



12 



13 




12. Ibid., p. 9. 

13. Ibid., pp. 10-11. 



6 



sum of not exceeding six hundred dollars for an exploration 

and survey of possible routes of communication between Lake 

14 

Erie and the Hudson River. On June 11, 1808, Surveyor 

General Simeon De Witt appointed James Geddes of Onondaga to 

15 

carry out this survey. Soon afterward Geddes entered upon 

his duties, and on January 20, 1809, he presented to De Witt 

16 

a favorable report on an inland route. 

By virtue of a Resolution passed on March 15, 1810, by 

both branches of the New York State Legislature, Gouverneur 

Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Simeon De Witt, 

William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter were appointed 

Commissioners "for exploring the whole route, examining the 

present condition of the said navigation, and considering what 

17 

further improvement ought to be made therein." Subsequently, 

a law was passed on April 5, 1810, authorizing the Treasurer to 

pay to the Commissioners a sum not exceeding $3,000 to implement 

18 

the Resolution passed on March 15, 1810. 

The Commissioners studied the various routes and their 
advantages and disadvantages, and on March 2, 1811, submitted 



]k. Ibid., p. 11. 

15. Ibid., pp. 11-12. 

16. Ibid. , pp. 12-32. 

17. Ibid. , pp. 46-i*7. 

18. Ibid. , p. 47. 



7 



19 

a favorable report on the advisability of the canal undertaking. 

Their report resulted in the passage of a law on April 8, 1811, 

whose preamble stated that M a communication by means of a canal 

navigation between the great lakes and Hudson's river will 

encourage agriculture, promote commerce and manufactures, 

facilitate a free and general intercourse between parts of the 

United States, and tend to the aggrandizement and prosperity 

of the country, and consolidate and strengthen the union." 

Furthermore the Commissioners received special powers to implement 

the proposed inland navigation, such as power to buy lands 

through which navigation might be carried, and to employ engineers, 

surveyors and other people as they should deem necessary to 

fulfill the obligations imposed on them by the Act of 

20 

April 8, 1811, etc. 

On March 14, 1812, the Commissioners submitted to the Legis- 
lature another report emphasizing the advantages of an interior 
route between Lake Erie and the Hudson River; in answer to their 
opponents who favored the old route by Lake Ontario, they quoted 

in their support a statement by Mr. Weston, "whose abilities as 

21 

an engineer . . . are unquestioned." 

"7<r Ibid. , pp. 48-69. 

20. Ibid., pp. 70-71. 

21. Ibid., pp. 71-87; Cf. also Report of the Commissioners 
Appointed by an Act of the Legislature of the State of New-York, 
Entitled j "An Aot to provide for the Improvement of the Internal 
Navigation of the State, " passed April 8th 3 1811. For the con- 
sideration of all matters relating to the said Inland navigation. 
(Albany: Printed by S. Southwick, 1812), pp. 3-21. 

8 



Having received full support and strong recommendations 

in favor of their project from Mr. Weston, Mr. Gouverneur Morris 

and the other Commissioners, the canal planners now found that 

a canal with a uniform descent from Lake Erie would be 130 

feet above the outlet of the Cayuga Lake, and therefore that 

the expense of an embankment would be far above their first 

estimate. Consequently the Commissioners admitted that their plan 

could not be realized as it stood, and "that it would become 

necessary to descend eighty or ninety feet, so as to cross the 

22 

Cayuga, by an embankment of moderate height." 

The War of 1812, known in history as the "Terrapin War," 

delayed the plans for construction of the canal, and Federal 

assistance was vetoed by President James Madison. In addition 

new doubters and obstructionists were rising in opposition to 

the project. During the summer of 1813, the Commissioners 

suspended their surveys because of military operations which 

23 

were not "favourable to internal improvement." 

The revival of the plan for the construction of the Canal 
came in 1815; the War was over and the need for internal improve- 
ment had again become evident. New settlers were beginning to 

22. Faots and Observations in Relation to the Origin and 
Completion of the Erie Canal. Second Edition. (Providence: 

F. Y. Carlile and H. H. Brown, 1827), p. 13. 

23. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, p. 103. 



9 



move into upper New York State, and with the steadily growing 
strength of these new interior settlements there came also new 
impetus for the idea of an Erie Canal . 



10 



CHAPTER II 



THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT WORK 

During the months of February and March of 1816 the New 

York State Legislature received numerous petitions and memorials 

from citizens asking for the improvement of internal navigation 

1 

in the State of New York, and a law was passed on April 17, 
1816, providing for the desired improvements. In addition, 
Messrs. Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, Samuel Young, 
Joseph Ellicott, and Myron Holle were appointed Commissioners, 
while the names of Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, William 
North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter, who had previously 
been Commissioners, were omitted. The law also declared "that 
the commissioners shall choose one of their number, to be 
president of their board, and shall be allowed and paid such 
salary as the said commissioners shall deem proper and reasonable: 
And the president of the said board of commissioners, shall have 
power to call a meeting of the same whenever in his opinion, the 
public interests require it." In addition the law provided 

$20,000 to defray expenses incurred by the Commissioners, 

2 

such as surveys, etc. 

1. Ibid. , pp. 119-141. 

2. Ibid. , pp. 184-186. 



1 1 



Shortly afterward the newly appointed Commissioners 

3 

selected De Witt Clinton as their President. 

During the meeting held in New York on May 17, 1816, the 

Commissioners decided to divide the Erie Canal into three sections, 

with an engineer for each section "assisted by a surveyor, and a 

competent number of hands." On July 15, 1816, the Commissioners 

met again at Utica, where they determined that the dimensions 

of the Erie Canal should be 40 feet wide on the water surface, 

twenty- eight feet wide at the bottom and four feet in depth of 

water. The length of a lock was to be ninety feet, and its width 

4 

twelve feet in the clear. On February 17, 1817, the Commis- 
sioners submitted to the Assembly its report giving conclusive 

5 

evidence in favor of the proposed canals. 

On the strength of the report of the Canal Commissioners the 
Legislature of the State of New York on April 15, 1817, passed 
"An act respecting navigable communications between the Great 
Western and Northern Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean" which declared 
full confidence that the Congress of the United States as well as 
the States would share equal interest with the State of New York 
in the commencement, prosecution and completion of these important 



3. Facts and Observations in Relation to the Origin and Comple- 
tion of the Erie Canal, p. 15. 

k. Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York , on 
the Canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson River j and from Lake Champlain 
to the Same. Presented to the Legislature, 17th February, 1 81 7. (Al bany : 
Printed by J. Buel , Printer to the State, 1817), pp. 4-5. 

5 . Ibid. , pp. 3-90. 



12 



works and would contribute their full proportion of the expense. 

The Act also emphasized that the Commissioners appointed by the 

Act of April 17, 1816, were authorized and empowered to commence 

making the said canals "by opening communications by canals and 

locks between the Mohawk and Seneca rivers, and between Lake 

6 

Champlain and the Hudson river." 

In April of 1817 Clinton was elected Governor of New York 
State. 

The Commissioners, as soon as the season permitted, proceeded 

to the execution of their duties. With the passage of the law 

of April 15, 1817, authorizing construction between the Mohawk 

and Seneca Rivers, they began to take measures, and on July 4, 

1817, work on the Erie Canal was commenced with the excavation 
7 

at Rome. 

Thomas Jefferson, who as early as 1809 had stated that the 

"talk of making a canal of 350 miles through the wilderness . . . 

8 

is little short of madness," began to see things differently. 
In a letter of June 13, 1817, to his distinguished German friend, 
Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Jefferson expressed satisfaction 



6. Laws of the State of New-York 3 Passed at the Fortieth 
Session of the Legislature s Begun and Held at the City of Albany i the 
Fifth Day of November 3 1816. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel , Printer 
to the State, 1817), pp. 301-306. 

7 ' New York Canal Laws 3 Vol. I, pp. 367 and 371. 

8. Jefferson's doubts in 1809 as to the feasibility of the proj- 
ect are detailed and explained in Joshua Forman's letter of October 13, 
1828, to David Hosack. Cf. for this David Hosack, Memoir of De Witt 
Clinton: With an Appendix } Containing Numerous Documents 3 Illustrative 
of the Principal Events of His Life. (New York: Printed by 
J. Seymour, 1829), p. 3^7. 



13 



with the project, writing: "...The most gigantic undertaking 

yet pronounced, is that of New York, for drawing the waters of 

Lake Erie into the Hudson. The distance is 353 miles, and the 

height to be surmounted 661 feet. The expense will be great, 

but its effect incalculably powerful in favor of the Atlantic 
9 

States." 



9. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Collected and Edited 
by Paul Leicester Ford. Vol. X: 1 8 1 6- 1 826. (New York and London: 
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1899), p. 89. 



14 



CHAPTER III 



THE DEMAND FOR FOREIGN LABOR IN AMERICA 



Immigration to the United States between 1793 and 1815 came 

almost to a standstill due to the conditions in Europe caused 

by the French Revolution, and also because of the Federalist 

policy, which had lengthened the residence period required for 

citizenship to fourteen years. The conduct of the War of 1812 

by the Republican administration, and the Federalist opposition, 

which resulted in the Hartford Convention, cut off immigration 

virtually completely. The revival came after 1815. With the 

defeat of Napoleon came the settlement of the stormy European 

situation at the Congress of Vienna. This settlement opened 

the way for a new European migration to the New World, which 

became the beginning of the greatest movement of population in 

human history. The appeal of America for Europe's poor and 

disinherited was enormous and powerful. The New York Irish 

weekly paper The Shamrock described the arrival of immigrants 

in New York as follows: 

Emigrants continue to arrive in great numbers from 
almost every part of Europe. Every arrival is an 
accession of strength and wealth to the United States. 
As long as thousands, and tens of thousands, and 
hundreds of thousands of acres of land remain 
uncultivated, so long will it be the interest of the 



15 



people of America to encourage the residence of 
foreigners; so long as manufactures are capable 
of further and useful improvements so long will it 
be the interest of the citizens of the United 
States to encourage the foreign mechanic to 
emigrate to America; so long as necessary canals, 
roads, and bridges, remain unfinished or 
unattempted, so long must we feel the necessity of 
increasing the population by adding thereto the 
laborious and scientific foreigners. Then let 
emigration be encouraged, and this most solid of 
all riches flow in without interruption. The 
emigrants are chiefly from Ireland, and it 
behoves Irishmen residing in America, to be 
active in procuring them employment, by giving 
information where labourers or mechanics are 
most likely to meet good wages and steady 
employment: also, information of the state of 
markets, quality and price of lands, salubrity 
of climate, etc. All letters on these subjects, 
(post paid) directed to the editor of this paper, 
will be attended to, and every advice and 
instruction communicated to the stranger 
without charge. 1 

One letter from Ithaca, New York, to the Shamrock, stated 

that "Several of those persons (emigrants) may find advantageous 

2 

employment in this place, as labourers are much wanted." 
By the summer of 1816, in New York City alone, it was 

observed that there were "twelve thousand Irish, and the number 

3 • 

of all other foreigners may probably be as many." 

However, the majority of immigrants who arrived here were 
of peasant stock, and the peasant immigrant, upon landing in 
the New World, found it exceedingly difficult to find work 

1. The Shamrock^ August 17, 1 8 1 6 , p. 36**. 

2. Ibid., December 7, 1 81 6 , p. 381. 

3. Ibid., August 17, 1 81 6 , p. 365. 



16 



because he often lacked the necessary skills. 

Since his labor was not needed in the city, and since he 
was on the verge of destitution, this immigrant turned toward 
the rural areas for employment. Without quibbling over terms 
or inquiring too closely as to working conditions, he sought 
work constructing canals, railroads, and highways. 

To add to the miserable life at the construction camp -- 
low wages, poor living conditions, purchases through the company 
store -- was the fact that the immigrant could not complain to 
the canal company, since an intermediary had hired him. And 
since the cost of bringing the worker to the sites was considered 
a debt in many States, the worker had to complete his time for the 
contractor until he cleared the debt. Only in 1907 did the 
Federal Government construe this practice as peonage. 

Work in the cities, however, did not provide adequate 
security. The worker had to worry about sickness, injury, and 
the transitory nature of his employment. Consequently, little 
pride in their efforts in building the Nation developed among 
these workers. 

To better their lot the immigrants looked to their own. 
Leaders soon came to the fore. The "boss" or "padrone" at 
first voiced the men's grievances; later the "padrone" would 
conduct negotiations with the employers, maintain his "men," 
and make a profit for his efforts. In effect the "boss" 



17 



became a type of "subcontractor, built up new gar-s on his own 
initiative, and often also recruited members from his country- 
men abroad." This system seemed "natural" for those who had 
been farmers in the "old country." 

The padrone system, however, left much to be desired, for 
some padrones were capable of exploiting the immigrant and 
neglecting the relationships that existed between worker and 
padrone abroad. Generally, the immigrant regarded construction 

work as no more than a "makeshift," just as they considered 

4 

migratory labor in Europe. 

The influx of Irish immigrants during 1816 was uncommonly 
great and it was directed primarily to a single place of debarka- 
tion, New York City. Indeed, New York was the place where, 
with the exception of a few hundreds, the body of Irish 
immigrants landed. 

De Witt Clinton came to be known in New York as the 

5 

protector of the Irish immigrants. 

Since the Irish laborers had had prior experience in building 

canals in the British Isles and France, and since they could work 

hard under difficult living conditions for low pay, their labor 

6 

was much in demand in America. 



k. Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted. (Boston: Little, Brown, 
and Company, 1953), pp. 66-70. 

5. Alvin Kass, Politics in New York State, 1800-1830. (Syracuse , 
N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1965), p. 86. 

6. Richard J. Purcell, "Immigration to the Canal Era" in 
Alexander C. Flick, Ed., History of the State of New York. Vol. 7: 
Modern Party Battles. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 
pp. 25-26. ' 

18 



The Irishman, until the latter half of th' 19th century, 
provided most of the cheap, unskilled labor for building 
America's roads, canals, and railroads. After he had climbed 
a few rungs of the economic and social ladder, he became a 
"boss" over other immigrant groups. Sections of the National 
Road were constructed primarily by Irish laborers, who received 
six dollars a month. It is known that an Irish priest celebrated 
Mass and ministered to the spiritual needs of the workers in 
1839 in northwestern Ohio. 

During the canal -building period, contractors imported 
many workers by advertising in the Catholic and local papers in 
Ireland. To keep wages down, employers would call for more men 
than they actually needed. Many were eager to work for seventy- 
five cents to a dollar and a half a day and even for lower wages 
once the labor supply increased. Whiskey rations were often part 
of the contract. However, much of the Irish reputation for brawl- 
ing and drinking stemmed not only from these rations, but also 

from the miserable working conditions and from the carrying over 

7 

to the New World of quarrels among rival gangs from Ireland. 



7. Carl Wittke, The Irish in America. (Baton Rouge: 
Louisiana State University Press, 1956), pp. 32-33. 



19 



CHAPTER IV 



THE PROGRESS OF THE CANAL CONSTRUCTION AND THE 
IRISH WORKMEN ON THE ERIE CANAL 

The Canal Commissioners took measures for the prosecution 

of the great enterprise with a zeal and spirit from which only 

the most happy result could have been anticipated. No opposition 

from local or political prejudices was able to turn the 

Commissioners from their purpose. 

As indicated above, the construction of the Canal began 

1 

with an impressive ceremony at Rome on July 4, 1817. 

At first the Commissioners planned to supply the State with 
the needed tools. After a great deal of thought, however, it 
was decided to be more economical and let the work in small sec- 
tions to contractors. The contractors were to provide their 

own tools for excavation and embankment, and were to be reim- 

2 

bursed for their services at a set price per cubic yard. The 
amounts of the contracts varied in length from 40 rods to three 
miles. One reason the Commissioners gave for letting out the 
Canal in small sections was that it would enable men of more 



1 . See Supra, p . 13. 

2. Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York } on 
the Canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson River 3 and from Lake 
Champlain to the Same. Presented to the Legislature, January 31st, 
1818. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel , Printer to the State, 1 8 1 8) , 
pp. ^-5. 



20 



modest means to do this work if they could obtain the necessary 
3 

backing. Public improvement work was just beginning, and for 

this reason contracting, as we know it today, was unheard-of. 

This new method of letting the work out in small portions and 

advancing money with which to buy tools, enabled many men in 

4 

various occupations to strive to acquire the contracts. 

The construction of the Erie Canal was a blessing to the 
people living in that area. Money was not plentiful and the 
means to procure it were limited, so that thousands of people 
were eager to seize the opportunity to obtain the contracts on 
the Canal . 

The problem of building the Canal was complicated by the 

question of selection of engineers as well as labor force. As 

early as March 8, 1814, the Commissioners reported to the New 

York State Assembly that they had made an inquiry and wanted to 

appoint an English engineer to commence the surveys for the Erie 

Canal, but that he was unable to come because of our conflict 

5 

with Great Britain. Those engineers employed were native 

Americans except for two, one French and one Irish, who were 

6 

employed for a year to do some preliminary examination. . By 



3. Ibid., p. 9. 

A. Noble E. Whitford, History of the Canal System of the State 
of New York Together With Brief Histories of the Canals of the 
United States and Canada. Vol. I. (Albany: Brandow Printing 
Company, 1906), p. 87. 

5. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, pp. 102-103. 

6. Ibid., p. 107. 

21 



March 8, 1816, the Commissioners had expressed their preference 

for American engineers over those from Europe because the job 

required an experienced engineer and according to the Commissioners 

7 

"There are few persons of this description in Europe." This 

was not, of course, true, and it seems rather that in the immediate 

commencement and vigorous prosecution of this great national work 

the Commissioners decided to turn to its own State's citizens. 

In its meeting held in New York on May 17, 1817, the 

Commissioners agreed to divide the Erie Canal into three sections 

and the Charaplain Canal into one. They also agreed to appoint 

three engineers for the Erie and one for the Champlain canals, 

each engineer to be assisted by a surveyor with a competent 
8 

number of hands. 

The three planned sections of the Canal were the eastern, 

extending from Albany to Utica, 107 miles; the middle, from 

Utica to Montezuma, 96 miles; and the western, from Montezuma to 

9 

Buffalo, 160 miles. 

Benjamin Wright became the chief engineer and surveyor of 
the Erie Canal . 



7. Ibid. , p. 117. 

8. See Supva 3 p. 12. The Champlain Canal commences in the 
Hudson River at Waterford and stretches to the north to Lake 
Champlain at Whitehall. Its length is 61 miles. 

9. Biles' Weekly Register^ Vol. XXV, No. 632 (October 25, 
1823), p. 128. 



22 



The operation between Rome and Utica was direc ed by 

10 

Isaac Briggs, "an eminent mathematician." 

Between July 4, 1817, and January 31, 1818, fifteen miles 

were considered as completed of the contracted distance of 

11 

about fifty-eight miles. 

To prevent any possible shortage of labor, a legislative 

provision for the use of prison labor was enacted on April 15, 

1817, when an Act was passed relative to the work of prisoners 

on the Erie and Champlain canals . This Act gave the Canal 

Commissioners authority to contract with any individuals or 

companies for the services of those committed to the State 

prison, to work on the canals. Some of the regulations imposed 

upon the individuals or companies were: they were to post adequate 

bonds, which bonds were to be approved by the Canal Commissioners; 

the duration of tenure was to be not less than six months; they 

were to assume complete financial responsibility for the convicts. 

The Act further stated that if a prisoner escaped while so 

employed, he was to be banished from the State on pain of death 

12 

should he return at a later date. This would only indicate 
that there might have been a labor shortage, the canal work not 
being sought after by the "native" Americans because it was 
difficult, dangerous, and perhaps unsuitable to their dignity. 



10. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, p. 370. 

1 1 . Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York, on 
the Canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, and from Lake Champlain 
to the Same. Presented to the Legislature, January 31st, 1818. 
(Albany: Printed by J. Buel , Printer to the State, 1818), pp. 11-12. 

12. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, p. 365. 

23 



In building the canal many hardships confronted the 

laborers: contractors who encouraged fights among the workers 

to avoid paying them; loss of pay on rainy days but with charges 

for lodging; malaria; "canal fever"; cave-ins, and tuberculosis. 

In spite of all these difficulties, many immigrants and urban 

workers were willing to accept such jobs and ignored warnings 

from the Irish-American papers that urged them to shun canal 

and railroad work because they were "the ruin of thousands of 

13 

our poor people" who were considered "like slaves." 

According to the Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners 

dated January 25, 1819, a very small number of the contractors 

were aliens who had just migrated to the United States, the 

greater portion of contractors being native farmers, mechanics, 

merchants and professional men who lived in the vicinity of the 

canal route. The report pointed out that "great numbers of 

wealthy and respectable citizens sought contracts" and that 

"Many applications, for every section, were always made immediately 

after, and often before, the returns of the engineer had been 

received, so as to render it proper to let them out." In addition 

the report stated that three-quarters of the laborers were born 
14 

in that area. Specifically the report said that "A very few of 

the contractors are foreigners, who have recently arrived in 

this country . . . and three-fourths of all the laborers were 
13. Wittke, op. cit. t p. 3^. 

H. Annual Report of the Canal Cormrissioners 3 Comrriunioated to 
the Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel , 
Printer to the State, 1819), p. 10. 

2k 



15 

born among us." 

It would seem that immigrants played a much more important 
part in the construction of the Erie Canal as contractors as 
well as labor than the above report indicates. For example, 
among the people who promoted the execution of canal navigation 
from Lake Erie to the Hudson was John Greig, who donated to 
the people of the State of New York three thousand acres of 

16 

land lying in the county of Steuben, west of the Seneca River. 

And John Greig, this generous contributor, was described by a 

man who presumably was De Witt Clinton as "an emigrant from 
17 

Scotland." On the other hand, why should the New York State 
Legislature pass a legislative provision regarding the use of 
prison labor on the canals had it not been for a shortage of 
workers? And since the majority of the "native" Americans con- 
sidered canal construction, and later on railroad construction, 
as dirty and dishonorable work, it seems logical to presume that 
immigrants were used for this work, and most of the immigrants 
used for such work at that time were Irish. 



15. Ibid. 

16. New York Canal Laws s Vol. I, p. 285. 

17. Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources 
of the State of New- York. By Hlbernicus. (New York: Sold by 

E. Bliss 6 E. White, 1822), p. 55. This particular letter originally 
appeared as Letter No. XII in The New-York Statesman on Tuesday, 
July 18, 1820, p. 3. "Hibernicus" was one of the several 
pseudonyms which De Witt Clinton frequently used. 



25 



The digging of the Erie Canal was, after the Schuylkill 
River Canal project, described below, the second major construc- 
tion work in America which can be credited to the Irish, and 
from that time on they were considered indispensable. Except 
for the early Southern jobs, it can be said that Irishmen 
were responsible for digging all the American canals constructed 
before the Civil War. Accounts of a conflict they had with 
the Pennsylvania German residents of Myerstown, Pa., attest 

to the fact that they had labored on the unsuccessful Schuylkill 

18 

and Susquehanna canal in 1783. 

In the 1818-1825 Annual Reports of the Canal Commissioners, 

only one direct reference is made to Irish laborers. In their 

report for 1818 the Commissioners state that three Irishmen in 

the employ of Messrs. Pease, Mosely, and Dexter completed three 

rods of the Canal in five and one-half days. Each man was 

apparently equipped with a plow and a scraper. Their work 

included finishing the banks and tow-path "in four feet cutting. M 

It took these men sixteen and one-half days to complete the 

excavation of two hundred forty-nine and one- third cubic yards. 

At twelve and one-half cents per cubic yard each worker earned 

18. Alvin F. Harlow, Old Towpaths. The Story of the 
American Canal Era. (New York and London: D. Appleton and Co., 
1926), p. 5k. 



26 



19 

$1.88 per day. This, of course, does not mean that there 

were only three Irishmen working on the Canal. As a system, 

three men were attached to a working team, and the workers 

could choose to be paid either per diem or by the amount of 

20 

earth they excavated and cleared. As no other references 
to the Irish or any other ethnic group appear in any of the 
Annual Reports of the Canal Commissioners, it is possible to 
assume that the above reference to the three Irish laborers 
was meant to illustrate the efficacy of plough and scraper in 
excavation as opposed to spade and wheel-barrow, and also how 
well the Irish workmen labored. 

The New York census of 1845 shows that the Irish comprised 
10% to 15% of the population along the Erie Canal. By coloniz- 
ing there and by digging the Canal, they were responsible for 

21 

helping to make New York the first State of the land. 

It was the custom of the Irish immigrants to choose to 
settle near the places of their employment. With the "native" 
Americans avoiding difficult conditions in heavy canal work, here 



19. Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York, 
on the Canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, and from Lake 
Champlain to the Same. Presented to the Legislature, January 31st, 
1818. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel , Printer to the State, 1 8 1 8 ) , 
p. 13. 

20. Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Erie Canal. (New York: Random 
House, 1953), p. W. 

21. William Forbes Adams, Ireland and Irish Emigration to 
the New World from 1815 to the Famine. (New York: Russell & 
Russell, 1967), p. 352. 

27 



was a chance for the Irish to enter a field in their newly- 
adopted country which other people avoided. And indeed the 
Irish labor filled this need. 

"Yankee ingenuity and Hibernian brawn" was often descrip- 
tive of how the canals were built. Irish labor was attracted 
to America in many instances by deceptive advertising: "meat 
three times a day, plenty of bread and vegetables, with a 
reasonable allowance of liquor, and eight, ten, or twelve 
dollars a month for wages." In effect workers became indentured 
servants before leaving Europe, for they signed contracts in 
Ireland. Disorders and insubordination occurred frequently in 

the labor camps. Some ran away from their contracts, and fights 

. 22 
broke out between workers from different counties in Ireland. 

The Irish canal diggers appeared to the "native" American 

as "wild Irish" or "Irish nigger" because they would stoop to 

do pick-and-shovel work, drank much, and waged "county" fights. 

Since they suffered many abuses at the hands of contractors and 

even Irish subcontractors, they joined secret societies which 

churchmen condemned. However, "hundreds and hundreds of single 

men in unpoliced regions were guilty of no sabotage or 

23 

destruction of property." 

22. Wittke, op. ait. , pp. 35 _ 36. 

23. Purcell, op. ait. j p. 26. 



23 



Missionary priests often ministered to the workers, who 

led a violent social life resulting in part from drinking. The 

missionary priest in the workers' midst was a social worker 

as well as a minister. The laborer would turn to the priest for 

advice and for resolution of difficulties. Often the workers 

would come many miles for the spiritual strength of the Mass 

or Confessional . It was not uncommon for the laborers to help 

24 

the priests build churches and charitable asylums. It was 

observed that "At Mount Morris, three hundred Irish Catholics 

working on the Canal, were visited by Rev. Mark Murphy, and, 

to suit their convenience, Divine Service was held near 

Brushville. Judge Carroll donated a piece of ground, upon which 

was built a poor chapel, or rather a shanty, where the pious 

Catholics met to adore their God, and to practice their holy 
25 

religion." 

Thus their faith helped the Irish workmen through their 
difficult life. 

Similarly, their living conditions were very poor. It was 
not unusual for an entire Irish laboring family to live in one 
small wooden shack which measured 14 feet by 10 feet. Captain 

2k. Ibid. , p. 27. 

25. John Timon, Miss-ions in Western New York, and Church 
History of the Diocese of Buffalo, by Bishop of Buffalo. (Buffalo: 
Catholic Sentinel Print, 1862), p. 220. 



29 



Frederick Marryat, who inspected one such shack in the late 

1830s, discovered that the whole family, husband, wife, and 

children, slept in one bed. The bed did not have a mattress 

26 

or even straw, and under it rested a pig. 

The outside provisions for the labor were also primitive. 

It was reported that the hollow trunk of one tree having a 

girth of thirty feet allowed one enterpriser to convert it 

27 

into a grocery store. 

But in spite of such difficulties the work on the Canal 

progressed. By 1818 the Erie Canal had gained in public favor. 

Attempts were made to destroy Governor Clinton politically by 

it, and if it had failed he would have been destroyed, as the 

whole blame would have been attached to him. He and the rest 

of the Canal Commissioners, however, accepted the responsibility 
28 

for the project. 

Through 1818 the construction of the Canal was moving steadily 
forward with between two and three thousand men, together "with 
half as many horses and cattle, and a considerable variety of 

26. William J. Petersen, Steamboating on the Upper 
Mississippi. (Iowa City, Iowa: The State Historical Society of 
Iowa, 1968), p. 317. 

27. Madeline Sadler Waggoner, The Long Haul West- The Great 
Canal Era, 1817-1850. (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1958), 

p. 72. 

28. The New-York Statesman (Albany, N.Y.), July 7, 1820, 

p. 3. 



30 



29 

mechanical inventions." Irish immigrants constituted a quarter 
30 

of the workers. 

On April 7, 1819, an Act concerning the Great Western and 

Northern Canals was passed. This Act authorized De Witt Clinton 

to open communications, by canals and locks, between the Seneca 

River and Lake Erie and between the termination of the canal on 

the Mohawk River and the Hudson River. In this way the 

Commissioners received authority to build and complete the entire 

line of canal spreading from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. This 

Act also stated that anyone who worked on either the Erie or 

Champlain Canals would not have to do militia duty in New York 

State, except in instances of insurrection or invasion which 

might take place while the worker was so employed. The certificate 

of one of the Canal Commissioners or contractors who employed the 

men subject to military duty was sufficient proof of such 
31 

engagement. It was evident that in most instances the workers 

were not properly armed or equipped to be of any value on the 

parade ground, and it was estimated that during the previous 

(1818) season, approximately $20,000 worth of performance was 

32 

lost due to militia interruptions. 



29. Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners, Communicated 
to the Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel, 
Printer to the State, 1819), p. 11. 

30. Adams, The Erie Canal, p. 60. 

31. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, pp. 433-^35. 

32. Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners , Communicated to 
the Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel, 
Printer to the State, 1819), p. 30. 

31 



CHAPTER V. 



WORKING CONDITIONS ON THE ERIE CANAL 

The Irish took well to their new country and even to their 
hardships. The pay was relatively good, and there was warm 
sleeping space on the shanty floor and roast beef twice a day 
as well as a swig of whiskey every hour. 

The contractor, as well, benefited from the arrangement. 
Though he paid for shanties that could accommodate forty 
laborers each, equipment, horses, food and whiskey, he received 
one shilling per yard excavated or $2,500 for each mile. The 
Canal Commissioners would print scrip, in the form of 100 certi- 
ficates, if more cash was needed. It was common for a contractor 
to be set up with a $2,000 loan, and he had the privilege of 
borrowing $200 to $1,000 more for winter food supplies, which 
could then be transported by wagon since the ground was hard. 
"Under this system, during the year of 1818 between two and three 
thousand laborers were at work on the Erie Canal -- with a horse 
for every second man — digging and grubbing through what they 

called 'the smiling country,' the future Syracuse and Rochester 
1 

districts." 

1. Waggoner, op. ait. 3 pp. 70-71. 



32 



Between the Mohawk and Seneca Rivers a great portion of the 

canal line passes through swamps and marshes. These are the 

Montezuma, also called the Cayuga Marshes, near Syracuse. The 

Commissioners, not knowing anything about the Cayuga Marshes, 

sent Canvass White to investigate. He presented them with the 

problem of how one could build a canal over an area that was 

neither land nor water. The Seneca River that drained the marsh 

could be three feet below the level of the swamp in dry weather 

2 

and two feet above when the spring rains came. 

Both human and natural obstacles presented themselves to the 
laborers on these Montezuma Marshes. The notorious Doane- 
Tombleson gang fought with guns against encroachments into their 

3 

marshy hideout and extracted contributions from the bogtrotters. 

Though local labor avoided the swamp, the Irish eagerly 
tackled the job under James Geddes. After waiting three weeks 
for the water to go down, the Irish began work in June 1819, 
but the embankments they would build one day would dissolve into 
mud overnight. Even the contractor began to wish that he had 
never heard of "Erie." He planned to sink spiles or spikes 

2. Adams, The Erie Canal, pp. 76-77. 

3. Waggoner, op. oit. 3 p. 73. 



33 



to retain the enbankment, but marl, earth which would take a 

spike, was not always present; rather quicksand was often 
4 

under the water. 

Working wet earth imposed peculiar hardships on the 

laborers: the earth was heavier, it would run; clothes, horses, 

and cattle failed sooner; furthermore workers succumbed to 

sickness more quickly and required higher wages. Some contractors 

5 

were not sensitive to the importance of good draining. 

Sickness retarded particularly the completion of the Middle 

Sector. The Irish liked neither the quicksand nor the suffering 

which resulted from standing in water above their knees, nor the 

mosquitoes and leeches. They would turn their misery into a joke 

by singing, for example: 

We are digging the Ditch through the mire; 
Through the mire right up to our neck, by Heck! 
And the mud is our principal hire, 
In our pants, in our boots, down our neck^ by Heck! 
In our pants, in our boots, down our neck? 

A communication received by the Historian of Oneida County 

from Dr. 0. P. Hubbard, of Rome, stated that during the summer 

in the Montezuma marshes the untamed bogtrotters from Western 

Ireland carved a path through the trees the width of the Canal . 

k. Adams, op. ait., pp. 77-83. 

5. The Albany Gazette 3 March 2, 1820, p. I. 

6. Adams, op. ait. 3 p. 83. 

34 



They were compelled to wear only flannel shirts and slouch 

7 

caps, and labored in knee- deep mire. 

By July of 1819 morale had dropped to a low. Even Montezuma 

"necklaces' 1 or smudge-buckets hung around the neck to ward off 

insects were not successful, for the men spent more time coughing 
8 

than working. 

This swampland produced many problems. Unhealthy conditions 

impeded work between Sal ina and the Seneca River. Mosquitoes 

carrying the dreaded "ague" fever sickened a thousand workers 
9 

and many died. The strain of hard work, disease, and poor 

living conditions caused the workers to have short tempers. 

Frequently fights occurred. Even sick workers wished other 

incapacitated ones, death. "But most of all you wished it for 

the damned Old Erie. And when at long last you reached again 

for your shovel, it was only because you were as miserable idle 

10 

as you were when working." 

In their 1819 Annual Report the Commissioners stated that 
between the middle of July and the first of October 1819, about 
one thousand workers on the Canal from Sal ina to the Seneca 
River were incapacitated by illness due to the excessive and 

7. Harlow, op. cit. 3 p. 5^. 

8. Adams, op. cit. 3 pp. 85-91. 

9. Harlow, op. cit. 3 p. 53. 
10. Waggoner, op. cit. 3 p. ~Jk. 

35 



prolonged heat. For this reason some jobs had to be completely 

11 

abandoned for several weeks. 

But through the efforts of Governor Clinton and the Canal 

Commissioners, work on the Canal was soon resumed. By October 

of 1819 the whole middle section of the Canal, ninety-four miles 

in length, between Utica and the Seneca River was completed, 

12 

including the lateral canal at Salina. Villages were rising 

13 

rapidly on the banks of the Canal by 1819. Indeed this was 
the beginning of an era of tremendous growth of cities and 
villages along the Canal. In his speech of January 4, 1820, 
to the New York State Legislature Governor Clinton, in praising 
the completion of the middle section of the Canal, also predicted 
that "The efforts of direct hostility to the system of internal 
improvements will in the future be feeble. Honest and well dis- 
posed men, who have hitherto entertained doubts, have yielded 

14 

them to the unparalleled success of this measure." 

A meeting of the Commissioners held in October of 1819 at 
Utica determined the route of the Canal west of the Seneca River. 
They decided the old route was to be followed to Rochester on 
the Genesee River, and it was to be completed as soon as conditions 

11. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I f p. 450. 

12. Ibid., p. 454; Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners, 
Communicated to the Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. (Albany: Printed 
by J. Buel, Printer to the State, 1819), p. 26. 

13. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, p. 437. 

14. Ibid. , p. 438. 

36 



would allow. Three routes from Rochester were proposed, but the 

final decision was left to be made at a later date. 

In May of 1820 navigation was opened on the middle section 
16 

of the Canal. On May 2, 1820, Henry B. Elly of Utica placed 
an advertisement in The Albany Gazette on June 22, 1820, which 
stated: 

The public are respectfully informed that the Erie 
canal is open for navigation from Utica west, to 
Salina and Montezuma, near Cayuga Lake, ninety-four 
miles . l^ 

In his speech of November 7, 1820, to the New York State 

Legislature, Governor Clinton revealed that fifty-one miles of the 

Canal between the Genesee River and Montezuma, including fifteen 

locks, were under contract and he expressed an opinion that the 

whole distance of sixty and a quarter miles, with two additional 

18 

locks, could be completed by September 1, 1821. But this estimate 

could not be realized, because a number of workers had become ill. 

Consequently one thousand additional men were needed to work on 

19 

the Canal, and liberal wages were paid to the workers. The 
preparatory work was done during the winter of 1821-22, and with 



15. Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. XVII, No. 12 (November 20, 
1819), p. 178. 

16. Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners of the State of 
New-York, Presented to the Legislature, 12th March, 1821. (Albany: 
Printed by Cantine & Leake, Printers to the State, 1821), p. 12. 

17. The Albany Gazette, June 22, 1820, p. U. 

18. New York Canal Laws, Vol. II, p. 5. 

19. Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. XXII, No. 22 (July 27, 1822), 
p. 352. 

37 



the advent of spring active construction along the path of the 

Canal was begun. Although it was difficult to procure the 

required number of laborers, between 4 and 7,000 had been 

20 

employed constantly through the entire season. Because of 

this delay it was only in July 1822 that the Montezuma Marshes 

section was completed satisfactorily. In their Annual Report 

presented to the Assembly on February 24, 1823, the Canal 

Commissioners reported that "By great and persevering exertions, 

the excavation was so far completed, through this section of 

the canal, as to allow of the passage of a boat the thirtieth 

21 

day of July last." Thus on July 30, 1822, boats passed the 
Canal over the Cayuga marshes. 



20. New York Canal Laws, Vol. II, p. 109. 

21 . Ibid. , p. 103. 



38 



CHAPTER VI 



CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT USED ON THE ERIE CANAL PROJECT 

When the Canal was being dug steam shovels were yet unheard - 

of. Instead, rock and dirt were excavated with pick and shovel, 

and carried off in wheelbarrows. Thousands of men labored on 

this almost impossible task -- Yankees from the rocky Vermont 

farms, Negroes who collapsed with malaria, but mostly the Irish, 

who had left their famine-ridden homeland to labor on this ditch. 

The rock, sand, mud, and mosquitoes made the job difficult, but 

the industrious Irishmen were able to ditch forward approximately 

16 feet per man [per day] . Malaria claimed many lives as did 

accidents and exposure. Some were injured by blasts and landslides. 

Still others were hurt in the wild Saturday-night brawls when 

the hard-drinking Irish were relaxing with barrels of frontier 
1 

whiskey. 

The ingenuity of the Yankees was exemplified in the tools 
they devised in the construction of the Canal. One might say 
that necessity compelled the contractors to devise a number of 
labor-saving contrivances. 

The plow and the scraper were used for the first time in 
the building of the Canal, and a plow with an added cutting 

1. Harlan H. Hatcher, The Great Lakes. (London, New York, 
Toronto: Oxford University Press, ]Skk) , pp. 183-184. 

39 



blade was invented to use on the small roots. These small 
roots and fibers which had spread over the topsoil of the 
timbered land presented a great barrier to the excavation work. 
A narrow plow was devised to cut them; it was made of a heavy 
piece of iron securely attached at the upper edge by the beam, 
and in the back by the handle. The front, cutting edge of the 
iron was covered with steel. It was very sharp and resembled 
the front of a coulter, except that it became smaller as it 
neared the beam. The lower portion had a smooth finish and 
gradually reached a thickness of about four inches toward the 
handle. This implement was used to cut up roots not more than 
two inches in diameter, so that they could more readily be 

picked and dug out of the path of the shovel and scraper. The 

2 

plow was drawn by two yoke of oxen. 

There were other clever devices by which the canal builders 

dealt with the many natural obstacles which faced them. A 

dumping wheelbarrow and a shovel with a sharp edge was used for 

3 

cutting roots and swamp muck. A cable fastened to the pinnacle 
of a tree and coiled around a wheel which was operated by an 

2. Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners., Communicated to 
the Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. (Albany: Printed by J. Buel, 
Printer to the State, 1819), p. 13; New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, 
p. 405. 

3. Harlow, op. oit. , p. 53. 



40 



endless screw permitted one man alone to bring down the 
4 

largest trees. 

A young worker of the Canal invented an engine to pull 

stumps; it was composed of two twelve-foot wheels connected 

by an eight-foot long tree trunk which served as an axle. 

The spokes of another wheel fitted into the axle; on the ends 

of these spokes was fixed a huge grooved tire that was coiled 

with rope. The wheels were wedged so that the stump was on 

the inside of them, and a chain fettered it to the axle. 

Horses were hitched to the rope that was fastened around the 

inner wheel. With this leverage the stump was extracted and 

5 

the large wheels bore it off. This stump puller was put into 

use near Syracuse. 

At great expense and after much experimentation, an 

engineer, Canvass White, discovered cement in the year 1819. 

Prior to its discovery a group of men had contracted to supply 

quicklime to canal structures. They burned a large kiln 

and delivered it, but after using it the purchasers found 

that it would not slake. White learned of this and began 

experimenting. Stone from the same ledge was burned, pulverized, 

k. Noble E. Whitford, "The CanaT System and Its Influences 
In Alexander C. Flick, Ed., History of the State of Hew' York. Vol 
Conquering the Wilderness. (New York: Columbia University Press 
193*). p. 317. 

5. Walter D. Edmonds. Erie Canal. (Boston: Little, Brown, 
and Co., 1933), pp. 227-228. 

41 



mingled with sand, then rolled into a ball and put into a 
bucket of water overnight. The next morning it was discovered 
to have set. This new discovery saved the State of New York a 

6 

great deal of money that would have been spent on importations. 

New inventions, new men and horses were going into the 

marshland almost every day. Men, teams of horses and shovels 

filled the swamp, and digging progressed rapidly. Constantly 

moving into the area were wagons loaded with food for the men, 

hay for the animals, and new tools for the construction work. 

The contractors provided iron wheelbarrows to transport mud, 

spades molded like the marks on playing cards to cut roots, 

7 

and sharp ploughs and scoops. 



6. Whitford, "The Canal System and Its Influences," 
PP. 318-319. 

7. Edmonds, op. ait. s p. 227. 

42 



CHAPTER VII 



THE FINAL STAGES OF THE CANAL CONSTRUCTION 



The Report of the Canal Commissioners in 1820 took a stand 

against a request of the lawmakers to finish work on the eastern 

portion of the Erie before beginning on the western section. 

They pointed out that some contracts had already been let on the 

western section, and the contractors had incurred expenses 

without an advance in funds. Some of the expenses to which they 

had been subjected were the construction of huts for the workers 

and shelter for the cattle, the purchase of implements necessary 

to do the work on the canal, such as spades, shovels, carts, etc., 

the purchase of food for both the men and the animals, and the 

cost of transporting these items to the construction site. The 

reason that no advances had been made to the contractors was 

1 

that funds had not been allocated for this purpose. 

The construction work continued steadily forward, and by 

2 3 - 

1821 the Canal was opened at Little Falls and Schenectady. 



1. New York Canal Laws, Vol. I, pp. 465-^66. 

2. The Annual Re-port of the Canal Commissioners of the State 
of New-York, Presented to the Legislature, the 27th February, 1822. 
(Albany: Printed by Cantine & Leake, Printers to the State, 1822), 
p. 19. 

3. New York Canal Laws, Vol. 11, p. 70; The Annual Report 

of the Canal Commissioners of the State of New-York, Presented to the 
Legislature, the 27th February, 1822. (Albany: Printed by Cantine 
& Leake, Printers to the State, 1822), p. 20. 



43 



For geological and engineering reasons, it was necessary 
to route the Canal through Rochester, which was below the Upper 
Falls on the Genesee River. An aqueduct was constructed at 
this point. The contract which gave Rochester the final guaran- 
tee of the Canal crossing was let in the fall of 1821. The 
building of an aqueduct was a daring venture in those days, and 
involved many difficulties. The first contractor was William 
Brittin. He had just completed the construction of the new 
State prison at Auburn, and to alleviate the shortage of 
laborers at Rochester he brought with him about thirty convicts. 
A great many of the convicts escaped, which was a cause for 
alarm among the citizenry and the convict labor was subsequently 
replaced by the labor of free Irish immigrants who had just 
arrived. Added delays were encountered when Brittin died and a 
new contract had to be let, and when ice demolished the partially 

4 

finished piers. By September 1823 the cost had risen to $83,000. 

The huge 800-foot stone aqueduct was, however, already receiving 

5 

favorable comments from engineers who visited it. 

6 

In 1822 the Canal was opened at Rochester. When the Canal 
was opened many groups of new settlers came to Rochester and it 
k. McKelvey, op. ait. 3 pp. 91-92. 

5. One of the visitors who admired the stone aqueduct was a 
Royal water and building inspector from Wurttemberg, A.Duttenhofer, 
who visited the United States in 1826 and in 1835 published a book 
on his experiences here. For his description of Rochester and the 
huge 800- foot stone aqueduct see his Bereisung der vereinigten 
Staaten von Nordamerika, mit besonderer Hinsioht auf den Erie-Canal. 
(Stuttgart: Bei G.W. Loflund, 1835), p. 39- For an illustration 
of the Canal over the Genesee River in Rochester see Appendix A. 

6. New York Canal Laws, Vol. II, p. 100. 

44 



began to become a thriving community. Perhaps the most predominant 

of these new groups was the Irish, who had first come to work on 

the Canal. A few of their families established themselves around 

the log cabin which the Irish pioneer James Dowling build in 1817 

on the river road to Carthage. This colorful, troublesome 

settlement was known as Dublin, and it gained admittance to the 

7 

corporate limits in 1823. 

In 1822 a traveller reported that he had journeyed 160 miles 
by boat on the Erie Canal. His trip had taken him from Little 
Falls to Utica, a distance of 22 miles; Utica to Montezuma via 
Rome, Syracuse and Weed's Basin, which was 96 miles; he then 
crossed the Seneca River and the Cayuga Marshes at Montezuma, 6 
miles; then went up the River Clyde 6 1/2 miles to the Blockhouse. 
Here he again took the Canal to Harwell's Basin, passing by the 
villages of Lyons and Palmyra. Passenger boats with good accommo- 
dations, and freight boats with huge cargoes of produce for Utica 

were seen on this route. Freight was transported from Montezuma 

8 

to Utica at five cents per hundredweight. 

Indeed the traffic was so extensive that Nilee' Weekly 
Register of November 23, 1822, predicted: "The revenue received 

7. McKelvey, op. ait. , p. 104. 

8. Hies' Weekly Register, Vol. XXII, No. 18, (June 29, 
1822), p. 275- 



45 



on the Erie Canal for tools will exceed 60,000 dollars for 

9 

the present year!' 1 

10 11 
In 1823 the Canal was opened at Brockport and Albany. 

A deep excavation was necessary for the construction of the 

Canal at Lockport. Huge wooden rigs and block and tackle were 

employed for the digging. Great quantities of granite were 

removed from the gorge, and workmen labored at ground level 

12 

and also in the channel itself. Finally by September 8, 1824, 

13 

the Canal was completed to Lockport. 

Among the new element in Rochester were a small group of 
both native-born and foreign migrants who were on their way west 
through the Canal. In 1824 boats from the East were seen going 
through Utica carrying families, their household goods and farm- 
ing implements, headed for Genesee County, Ohio, or the Michigan 
Territory. Wagons, which up to that time carried the pioneers. 



9. Ibid., Vol. XXIII, No. 13 (November 30, 1822), p. 208. 

10. New York Canal Laws, Vol. II, p. 163. 

11. Ibid., p. 172. 

12. For a full page illustration entitled "Process of Excavation 
Lockport," see Cadwallader D. Colden, Memoir, Prepared at the 
Request of a Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York, 
and Presented to the Mayor of the City, at the Celebration of the 
Completion of the New York Canals. (New York: Printed by Order of 
the Corporation of New York by W. A. Davis, 1825), facing page 298. 
See also Appendix B. 

13- The Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners of the State 
of New-York, Presented to the Legislature, March 4, 1825. (Albany: 
Printed by Croswell £ Van Benthuysen, 1825), p. 3. 



46 



14 

were almost never seen. 

On April 12, 1824, De Witt Clinton was removed from the 

office of Canal Commissioner in the New York State Senate by a 

vote of twenty-one to three, and in the House of Assembly by a 

15 

vote of sixty-four to thirty-four. On the same day the 

Legislature adjourned. Although the official documents do not 

include the causes for this action, the reason behind Clinton's 

removal was obvious. It was politically motivated, and both 

parties appeared united in desiring his removal. According to 

Niles' Weekly Register the removal of Clinton from office was 

a "mere political ruse de guerre, to operate on the presidential 
16 

election!" An editorial in the New York morning paper, the 

New-York Daily Advertiser, commenting on the removal of 

Mr. Clinton, said: 

We cannot believe this most unjust measure will meet 
with the approbation of the respectable citizens of 
this great state. To Mr. Clinton's policy they are 
indebted, for all the advantages which this gigantic 
work promises to them and their posterity, to all 
future generations. We shall be much disappointed if 
they, as a body, do not express in a most decided manner, 
their resentment for a measure which not merely disgraces 
those by whom it was adopted, but degrades and dis- 
credits the character of the state. 



1*4. McKelvey, op. ait. , p. 105. 

15. New York Canal Laws, Vol. II, pp. 222-221*. 

16. Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. XXVI, No. 658 (April 2k, 
1824), p. 117. 

17. New-York Daily Advertiser, April 15, 1824, p. 2. 



47 



An editorial in another New York paper described Clinton's 
removal as: 

The envenomed malignity which displayed itself on 
this occasion the ungrateful return for 14 years of 
mental and bodily exertion on the part of Mr. Clinton, 
to ensure success to a measure which will redound to 
the credit of the state and the honor of the country, 
and for which no pecuniary compensation has ever been 
sought for, or accepted, must cause the cheek of 
every honorable man who calls himself an inhabitant 
of New York, to glow with a blush of shame and 
indignation. * 

But the removal of Clinton could not impede the completion 
of the Erie Canal. With deep interest the citizens of the State 
of New York looked forward to the accomplishment of this great 
work. Finally the Erie Canal, the largest internal improvement 
yet begun in the United States, was completed in October 1825, 
after more than eight years of construction. On October 26, 1825, 
the boat Seneca Chief, with Governor Clinton and other dignitaries 
aboard, after elaborate ceremonies left Buffalo for New York. 

19 

They were followed by a flotilla of less distinguished celebrants. 
On November 4, 1825, these first canal boats from Buffalo arrived 
in New York. It was a great day in New York, with a parade, 
speeches, etc. For this memorable occasion an ode was read and 
a special song sung. The distinguished guests in the Mayor's 



18. The New-York Evening Post, April 15, 1824, p. 2. 

19. The Buffalo Patriot, November 1, 1825, p. 2. 



48 



20 

party drank thirteen toasts in celebration. At the climax 

of the ceremony Governor Clinton poured a keg of Lake Erie 

water into New York Bay, marking the marriage of the waters 

and symbolizing the connection between the Great Lakes and 

21 

the Atlantic Ocean. 

The completion of the Erie Canal was an enormous engineer- 
ing feat. The Canal was forty feet wide, four feet deep and 
stretched 363 miles from the Hudson River, just north of Troy, 

westward to Buffalo. Eighty-three locks lifted boats 568 feet, 

22 

the difference in altitude between the Hudson and Lake Erie. 

It cost $7,143,789; that was at that time $4.42 for each 

23 

resident of the State of New York. 



20. The New-York Evening Post 3 November 5, 1825, p. 2; 
New-York American^ November 5, 1825, p. 2; The National Advocate 
(New York, N.Y.), November 7, 1825, p. 2; Mercantile Advertiser 
(New York, N.Y.), November 7, 1825, p. 2. 

21. For an illustration showing De Witt Clinton emptying 
the keg of Lake Erie water into New York Bay see Appendix C. 

22. Reise Sr. Hoheit des Herzogs Bemhard zu Sachs en-Weimar- 
Eisenaoh durch Nord-Amerioa in den Jahren 1825 and 1826. [Travels 
Through North America of Karl Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar- 
Eisenach During the Years 1825 and 1826]. Herausgegeben von 
Heinrich Luden. Erster Theil. (Weimar: Bei Wilhelm Hoffmann, 
1828), p. 115; John Fowler, Journal of a Tour in the State of New 
York, in the Year 1830; with Remarks on Agriculture in Those Parts 
Most Eligible for Settlers: and Return to England by the Western 
Islands^ in Consequence of Shipwreck in the Robert Fulton. (London: 
Whittaker, Treacher, and Arnot, 1831), p. 127. 

23. State of New York, The Erie Canal Centennial Celebration 
1926. The Final Report of the Erie Canal Centennial Commission 
Submitted to the Governor and the Legislature January, Nineteen 
Twenty-eight. (Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, Printers, 1928), p. 75- 



49 



It is difficult to estimate its importance for the development 
of the country. Upon its completion the Erie Canal not only 

24 

linked the Atlantic with the Erie but also the East with West. 
Its completion opened the Erie Era, during which great masses 
of people moved westward to satisfy their desire to occupy 
new land. 

When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, the cost of 

transportation was so reasonable that great numbers of Eastern 

families were able to travel to Michigan and its low-priced 

land. Three hundred passengers, for the most part new settlers, 

arrived in Detroit by a steamboat every week, and many others 

25 

made the journey in sailing vessels. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, 
and Michigan grew from a total population of less than 800,000 
in 1820 to more than four million in 1850, and the Erie Canal 
was primarily responsible for this growth. Indeed one may say 
that at that time no other single development had proved as 
great a stimulant of growth, not only of New York City but also 
of the Nation at large, as the construction of the Erie Canal. 
And for the benefits resulting from the construction of this 

2k. For a map and profile of the Erie Canal as it appeared 
in 1826 see Appendix D. 

25. Floyd R. Dain, Detroit and the Westward Movement. 
(Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1951), p. 16. For an 
illustration depicting an Erie Canal "liner" in the early 1830s, 
see Appendix E. 



50 



momentous work, the whole Nation was indebted to the talents 
and perseverance of the engineers and workers who successfully 
completed this stupendous undertaking which for some time was 
considered a doubtful venture by many intelligent, well-informed, 
and very distinguished citizens. 



When a bill organizing a territorial government for Nebraska 
and Kansas was discussed in the Congress in 1854, opposition 
arose on the part of the Know-Nothings against the immigrants, 
who it was felt should not be eligible to receive land there. 
Senator William H. Seward, Whig of New York, replying to Senator 
Archibald Dixon of Kentucky, said: 



It is now twenty-nine years ago since the system of 
internal improvement in this country commenced by the 
construction of the Erie canal through the State of 
New York, uniting the tide waters of the Hudson with 
Lake Erie; and since that time we have perfected five 
thousand miles of canals, at an expense of $600,000,000, 
extending our inland navigation from the Mississippi, 
at its mouth, to the Hudson River at New York, and thus 
dispensing altogether with what was one of the two 
great national wants at the time of the American 
revolution - the navigation of the St. Lawrence. How 
was that done? I mean, from whence came the labor 
that did it? 

I know of but one American citizen who worked with the 
spade and wheel barrow on those works. Doubtless 
there are many others, but I known only one, and he, 
I am glad to say, is now a member of this floor, [Mr. 
Wade, of Ohio,] and one of the most able and talented 



51 



members. But, as a general fact, the canals were 
made by aliens in the process of naturalization. 
What more have we done? We have made sixteen 
thousand miles of railroad, connecting the different 
parts of this Union inseparably together, and thus 
overcoming the want of centralization, and enabling 
ourselves to look with pity and contempt upon the 
statesman who seeks to alarm us into measures of 
doubtful merit or value, by threatening us with a 
dissolution of the Union. What labor made all 
these railroads? I think it was the labor chiefly 
of foreigners. 

Now, what I wish to ask, is, whether these roads 
and canals have cost too little? Suppose that the 
foreigners had remained at home, and American native 
labor had performed this work, can anybody tell 
what the canals and railroads would have cost? 

Referring to Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, Senator 
Seward attempted to illustrate that there were not too many 
native Americans of his kind who had worked with the spade and 
wheelbarrow on the Erie Canal construction or other canal 
constructions. It was difficult work, which only the strong in 
body and spirit could sustain, and this labor force was made up 
primarily of immigrant labor, of which the Irish immigrants 
constituted a major part. To them belong our thanks and grati- 
tude for connecting the various parts of this Union inseparably 
together and thus putting America on the course leading to its 
present growth. 



26. The Congressional July 12, 1854, pp. 1708-1709, 



52 



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BIBLIOGRAPHY 
Published Documents 



v Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners , Communicated to the 
Legislature, Jan. 25, 1819. Albany: Printed by J. Buel , 
Printer to the State, 1819. 

' Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners of the State of New-York, 
Presented to the Legislature, 12th March, 1821. Albany: 
Printed by Cantine & Leake, Printers to the State, 1821. 

The Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners of the State of 
New-York, Presented to the Legislature, the 27th February, 
1822. Albany: Printed by Cantine & Leake, Printers to the 
State, 1822. 

The Annual Report of the Canal Commissioners of the State of 
New-York, Presented to the Legislature, March 4, 1825. 
Albany: Printed by Croswell & Van Benthuysen, 1825. 

Facts and Observations in Relation to the Origin and Completion 
of the Erie Canal. Second Edition. Providence: F.Y. Carlile 
and H.H. Brown, 1827. 

Laws of the State of New York, in Relation to the Erie and 
Champlain Canals, together with the Annual Reports of the 
Canal Commissioners , and other Documents, requisite for a 
complete Official History of Those Works. Also, Correct Maps 
Delineating the Routes of the Erie and Champlain Canals, and 
designating the Lands through which they pass. Published in 
pursuance of the "Act for Re-Printing the Laws and Other 
Official Documents, relating to the Erie and Champlain Canals," 
Passed February 8, 1825. Vols. I and II. Albany: Published 
by Authority of the State, E. and E. Hosford, Printers, 1825. 

Laws of the State of New-York, Passed at the Fortieth Session of 
the Legislature, Begun and Held at the City of Albany, the 
Fifth Day of November, 1816. Albany: Printed by J. Buel, 
Printer to the State, 1 81 7 • 

Report of the Commissioners Appointed by an Act of the Legislature 
of the State of New-York, Entitled. "An Act to provide for the 
Improvement of the Internal Navigation of the State, " passed 
April 8th, 1811. For the consideration of all matters relating 
to the said inland navigation. Albany: Printed by S. Southwick, 
1812. 



58 



Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York, on the 
Canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, and from Lake 
Champlain to the Same. Presented to the Legislature, 17th 
February, 1 8 1 7 . Albany: Printed by J. Buel, Printer to the 
State, 1817. 

Report of the Commissioners of the State of New-York, on the Canals 
from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, and from Lake Champlain to 
the Same. Presented to the Legislature, January 31st, 1 8 1 8 . 
Albany: Printed by J. Buel, Printer to the State, 1 8 1 8 . 

State of New York, The Erie Canal Centennial Celebration 1926. 
The Final Report of the Erie Canal Centennial Commission 
Submitted to the Governor and the Legislature January, Nineteen 
Twenty-eight. Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, Printers, 1928. 



Books 



Adams, Samuel Hopkins., The Erie Canal. New York: Random House, 
1953. 

Adams, William Forbes, Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New 
World from 1815 to the Famine. New York: Russell & Russell, 
1967. 

Breasted, James Henry, Ancient Records of Egypt. Historical 
Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, 
Collected, Edited and Translated with Commentary by James 
Henry Breasted. Vol. I. Chicago: The University of Chicago 
Press, 1906. 

The Dawn of Conscience. New York and London: Charles 
Scribner's Sons, 1933. 

Chalmers, Harvey, The Birth of the Erie Canal. New York: 
Bookman Associates, i960. 

How the Irish Built the Erie. New York: Bookman Associates, 
Inc., 1964. 



59 



v Colden, Cadwallader D. , Memoir* Prepared at the Request of a 

Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York, and 
Presented to the Mayor of the City, at the Celebration of the 
Completion of the New York Canals. New York: Printed by 
Order of the Corporation of New York by W.A. Davis, 1825. 

Dain, Floyd R. , Detroit and the Westward Movement. Detroit: 
Wayne University Press, 1951. 

Duttenhofer, A. , Bereisung der vereinigten Staaten von Norddmerika* 
mit besonderer Hinsicht auf den Erie-Canal * Stuttgart; Bei 
G.W. Loflund, 1835. 

Edmonds, Walter D. , Erie Canal. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 
1933. 

Fowler, John, Journal of a Tour in the State of Nev York* in the 
Year 1830; with Remarks on Agriculture in Those Parts Most 
Eligible for Settlers: and Return to England by the Western 
Islands, in Consequence of Shipwreck in the Robert Fulton. 
London: Whittaker, Treacher, and Arnot, 1831. 

Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted. Boston: Little, Brown and 
Company, 1953- 

Harlow, Alvin F. , Old Towpaths. The Story of the American Canal 
Era. New York and London: D. Appleton and Co., 1926. 

Hatcher, Harlan H. , The Great Lakes. London, New York, Toronto: 
Oxford University Press, \3hk. 

Hosack, David, Memoir of Be Witt Clinton: With an Appendix, 
Containing Numerous Documents, Illustrative of the Principal 
Events of His Life. New York: Printed by J. Seymour, 1829. 

Hrozny, Bedfich, Ancient History of Western Asia* India and Crete. 
Prague: Orbis, n.d. 

Kass, Alvin, Politics in New York State 1800-1830. Syracuse, 
N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1965. 

La Lande, de Jerome, Des aanaux de navigation* et specialement 
du canal de Languedoc. Paris: Chez la veuve Desaint, 1778. 



60 



Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of the 
State of New-York. By Hibernicus. New York: Sold by 
E, Bliss 6 E. White, 1822. 

Lloyd, Seton, Ruined Cities of Iraq. London: Oxford University 
Press, 19^5. 

McKelvey, Blake Rochester the Water-Power City 1812-1854. 
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945. 

Marshall, John, The Life of George Washington, Commander in 

Chief of the American Forces, During the War Which Established 
the Independence of His Country, and First President of the 
United States. Compiled Under the Inspection of the Honourabl 
Bushrod Washington, from Original Papers Bequeathed to him by 
his Deceased Relative, and now in Possession of the Author To 
Which is Prefixed, An Introduction, Containing a Compendious 
View of the Colonies Planted by the English on the Continent 
of North America, from their Settlement to the Commencement of 
that War Which Terminated in Their Independence. Vol. X. 
Philadelphia: Printed and Published by CP. Wayne, 1 807 • 

Miller, Nathan, The Enterprise of a Free People. Aspects of 
Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1 792- 
1 838. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962. 

Parsons, William Barclay. Engineers and Engineering in the 

Renaissance. Baltimore: The Williams 5 Wilkins Company, 1939 

Payne, Robert, The Canal Builders: The Story of Canal Engineers 
Through the Ages. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959. 

Petersen, William J., Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi. 

Iowa City, Iowa: The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1968. 

Reise Sr. Hoheit des Herzogs Bernhard zu Sachs en-Weimar-Eisenach 
durch Nord-America in den Jahren 1825-1826 . Herausgegeben von 
Heinrich Luden. Erster Theil. Weimar: Bei Wilhelm Hoffmann, 
1828. 

Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West. A History of the Erie Canal 
1792-185^. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1 966 . 

Timon, John, Missions in Western New York, and Church History 
of the Diocese of Buffalo, by Bishop of Buffalo. Buffalo: 
Catholic Sentinel Print, 1862. 



61 



Waggoner, Madeline Sadler, The Long Haul West. The Great Canal 
Era, 1817-1850. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1958. 



Whitford, Noble E. , History of the Canal System of the State of 
New York Together With Brief Histories of the Canals of the 
United States and Canada. Vol. I. Albany: Brandow Printing 
Company, 1906. 

Wittke, Carl, The Irish in America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana 
State University Press, 1966. 

Wright, Benjamin H. , Origin of the Erie Canal: Services of 

Benjamin Wright. Rome, N.Y. : Sanford § Carr, 1870. (originally 
published in the New York Observer 3 1866) . 

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Collected and Edited by Paul 
Leicester Ford. Vol. X: 1816-1826. New York and London: 
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1899. 



Articles and Periodicals 



The Congressional Globe 3 July 12, 1854. 

miles' Weekly Register, Vol. XVII, No. 12, November 20, 1819; 
Vol. XXII, No. 18, June 29, 1822, No. 22, July 27, 1822; 
Vol. XXIII, No. 13, November 30, 1822; Vol. XXV, No. 632, 
October 25, 1823; Vol. XXVI, No. 658, April 24, 1824. 

Purcell, Richard J., "Immigration to the Canal Era," in Alexander 
C. Flick, Ed.,' History of the State of mew York. Vol. 7: 
Modern Forty Battles. (New York: Columbia University Press, 
1935), pp. 3-27. 

Whitford, Noble E., "The Canal System and Its Influences," in 
Alexander C. Flick, Ed., History of the State^of mew York. 
Vol. 5: Conquering the Wilderness. (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1934), pp. 295-336. 



Newspapers 

The Albany Gazette (Albany, N.Y.), June 22, 1820. 



62 



The Buffalo Patriot (Buffalo, N.Y.), November 1, 1825. 

Mercantile Advertiser (New York, N.Y.), November 7, 1825. 

The National Advocate (New York, N.Y.), November 7, 1825. 

New-York Daily Advertiser (New York, N.Y.), April 15, 1 824 . 

New-York American (New York, N.Y.), November 5, 1825. 

The New-York Evening Post (New York, N.Y.), April 15, 1824, 
November 5, 1825. 

The New-York Statesman (Albany, N.Y.), July 7 and 18, 1820. 

The Shamrock (New York, N, Y. ) , August 17, 1 8 1 6 . 



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GPO S79 --458